On Arendt and Jewish Collaboration with the Nazis

Here’s another interesting factoid that I just learned from Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial.

For all the abuse heaped on Arendt for what she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem about the issue of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis—leading some to claim that she put the Jews and the Nazis on the same level, a charge that Lipstadt unfortunately indulges*—there’s an irony to the trial that few have noticed.

In the words of Lipstadt:

The law under which Eichmann had been tried, the 1950 Nazis and Their Collaborators Law, was instituted in response to grassroots pressure from survivors, not to punish Nazis, but to punish Jews. The Knesset did not adopt the law in anticipation of the arrival of Nazi war criminals in Israel. The intent of the law was to ensure that Jewish survivors who had “collaborated” with the Nazis by serving as Kapos or the like were punished.

* “She [Arendt] saw symmetry between the Nazis and their victims where there was none.” (175)


  1. s. wallerstein October 25, 2014 at 7:41 am | #

    Does anyone know if any Jewish collaborators were actually punished under this law and if so, how severe was their punishment?

    • BillR October 25, 2014 at 8:31 am | #

      There were isolated reprisals against those who were already politically blacklisted for other reasons, but many in “the leadership of the communities (the Judenräte) were incorporated into the ruling elite of Israel“, but this is true of most European countries as well (e.g. in France the percentage of senior Civil servants with a voluntary Nazi past was higher after the war than before it). In fact, the degree of collaboration was so vast that the whole topic was swept under the carpet for another generation until the work of outsiders such as Robert Paxton of Columbia poked holes into such a “sensitive” topic. At some level, WWII was also an internecine Civil War in almost all occupied societies and the usual inclination after such conflict (from places such as post-1865 US to post-1975 Spain) is to forge a “pact of forgetting” until most of the actual participants have conveniently died off. Maurice Papon inconvenienlty lived well into this century past the time when the imperative to “draw a veil over the past” was still operative.

      • s. wallerstein October 25, 2014 at 5:18 pm | #

        Bill R,


        Your theory about World War 2 being a Civil War is well worth developing.

      • BillR October 25, 2014 at 8:34 pm | #

        Civil wars are complex things, but the possibility of one breaking out under hostile foreign occupation is rather high, especially in multiethnic countries with a history of inter-ethnic/religious contention. Even today, in wealthy Western Europe which has seen more than a lifetime of peace countries as diverse as UK, Spain, and Belgium would probably splinter apart rather quickly if a canny occupier uses the tried and true tactics from Roman times along the lines of Divide et impera. In fact, it need not even be a conscious tactic, the mere presence and concomitant labeling and favoritism from an occupying power can create such fissures, as has been well studied in cases ranging from Rwanda to British India. What was that Chief Justice Jackson said at Nuremberg many a moon ago?


      • Roquentin October 26, 2014 at 3:31 am | #

        One thing I’ll never forget is learning that Gertrude Stein had once been quoted as saying “Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.” The thing about leaders like that and the people who collaborate with them is they always assume the bad stuff will always happen to someone else. Communism so terrified much of the upper classes that they’d have accepted very nearly anyone else. If a few million Jews bit the dust, it was just collateral damage to them. At least that’s the sense I get from the smattering of literature I’ve read from the time.

  2. GerardO October 25, 2014 at 8:49 am | #

    I have to say I’m bemused that Professor Robin is repeatedly mentioning the racist Deborah Lipstadt on this blog. Maybe I’ll write a blog post that repeatedly quotes David Duke — I’ll email you a copy if you like, Corey.

  3. mischling2nd October 25, 2014 at 8:52 am | #

    It’s actually easier for most people to consciously hate those who are the same or near to them in status. The higher the enemy’s status and rank, the harder it is to work up a rage against him. We see this in politics every day. The school teachers and other public employees who make a little more than you do are easier to hate than the Koch Brothers. Why? You can be jealous of your peers or near-peers, but being jealous of billionaires is like being jealous of God.

  4. dcrawford October 25, 2014 at 9:20 am | #

    Agree about the internecine civil war dimension – WWII was much more that kind of war than most people realise, and in most countries at least some of the population fought on each side. In turn, this was because different groups had very different ideas about how far cooperation with, or resistance to, the Germans, furthered their national interests. For large parts of the elite in western Europe the real danger was not Germany, but the Soviet Union, and by collaborating with Germany they were keeping Communism away from their own borders.
    It’s these two things that really explain elite French collaboration. As Paxton showed (and many French scholars have followed him since) collaboration was a complex set of ideas, based essentially on the belief that German occupation was temporary, and that French national interests were better served by collaboration with a country that had effectively won, than by futile resistance. Eventually, France would regain its independence, in the meantime, Vichy sought the greatest freedom of action possible. When the war turned against Germany, this calculation changed. For this reason it’s not accurate to talk of a “Nazi past” in the case of the French collaborators. There were some extreme right-wing groups, not in Vichy but in occupied Paris, who explicitly shared Nazi ideas, and many of them went to fight in Russia. It was this group (people like Brasillach) who were tried and executed after the war. But most collaborators actually detested the Germans, and saw themselves as patriots. To have put them all on trial, even if logistically feasible, would have destroyed the French state.
    But the particular case you cite was an example of the micro-level collaboration of ordinary, often powerless, people, that went on all the time. This ranged from doing favors for the Germans to feed your family, to working for the Germans in concentration camps to gain a few extra months of life. The writer Jorge Semprun, imprisoned in Buchenwald for resistance activities, recalled that day to day life in the camp was basically run by those highly disciplined German Communist detainees who had survived. His life was saved as a fellow communist, because an administrator falsely told the Germans that he had skills worth using, and so would not be executed.
    In any event, unlike other states who tried and convicted German war criminals and their own collaborators (and yes the French did this on quite a large scale) the new state of Israel had no-one to try and punish. The idea of punishing fellow Jews for even the most trivial and understandable actions is best seen as a kind of political compensation mechanism. If you can’t be with the one you hate, in other words, hate the one you’re with.

    • BillR October 25, 2014 at 10:41 am | #

      yes the “drama of collaboration and resistance” is often stranger than fiction. Incidentally, the farmer making the gesture at the end of last clip was aiming it at the bourgeoisie and Parisians who tended to have more of a “go along to get along” attitude than folks such as himself.

  5. gstally October 26, 2014 at 4:05 am | #

    That’s such a strange unintended consequence. Isn’t it so awfully strange how many of those exist in history?

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